Archive for February, 2010

Why Are There More Canadian Lefties?

Reader Benjamin sent me a link to this interesting article about the high incidence of left-handed hockey players among Canadians.

According to sales figures from stick manufacturers, a majority of Canadian hockey players shoot left-handed, and a majority of American players shoot right-handed. No reason is known for this disparity, which cuts across all age groups and has persisted for decades.

Most Canadians, like most Americans, are naturally right-handed, so the discrepancy has nothing to do with national brain-wiring. And how you hold a pencil, say, has little or no bearing on how you hold a stick. A left-handed shooter puts his right hand on top; a right-hander puts the left hand there.

I was curious, so I decided to check out the disparity for baseball. It turns out that Canadians are much more likely to bat left-handed than Americans.

Bats	CAN	USA
L	46.15%	28.43%
R	49.04%	65.48%
S	4.81%	6.09%

My first thought was that higher participation in hockey may generate more left-handed batters, because hitting opposite your natural hand is something that can be learned. If you’re playing hockey and baseball there are higher returns to learning how to do things left-handed. Plus, being able to shoot either way makes a player more dangerous; thus, right-handed baseball players will be able to more easily learn to bat left-handed. Though, the rate of switch-hitting is about the same between the groups. I think this may be part of the explanation, but I don’t know if it explains the entire disparity.

Unlike hitting, throwing a baseball is difficult to learn. You are either born capable to throw with your left arm, or you aren’t. And when we look at throwing arms, Canadians again are more likely to be left-handed than Americans, though the disparity is much less than it is for hitting.

Throws	CAN	USA
L	24.10%	20.41%
R	75.90%	79.59%

So, for the sake of being crazy, let me throw out a crazy explanation. Several years ago I noticed that Latin American players were more right-hand dominant than the rest of the baseball population. I thought the best explanation was that cultural biases against left-handedness may have been encouraging more right-handedness. But now that we see more lefties in Canada than in the US, but less in Latin America, I wonder about a Jared Diamond-esque theory of geographic determinism. Maybe the further you go from the equator, the more likely you are to be left-handed.

Remember, I called this a crazy theory, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. I think the place to test this would be with footedness in soccer, which is played all over the world. Are Scandinavians more likely to be left-footed than North Africans? If this data is out there, I’d love to see it examined.

Apolo Ohno Is an Old Fogey

My latest Olympinomics post is up at Olympics-Reference.

Apolo Ohno may be the most recognized American participating in this year’s games. Not only is he a Dancing with the Stars champion, but he’s competing in his third Olympics. And unless you haven’t been listening to any of the commentary, you’re probably aware that he is attempting to win more medals in the Winter Olympics than any other American. With his win Saturday night in the 1,500 meters Short Track, he tied Bonnie Blair for six total medals. Even if Ohno does not surpass Blair, his performance may be more impressive considering that he has competed across Olympic games that were all four years apart. Blair benefited from the short gap between the 1992 and 1994 games.

But why am I calling him an old fogey? At 27 Ohno isn’t even close to the oldest person to win a medal in the Winter Olympics.

Olympinomics

With the Winter Olympics starting up with the opening ceremony tonight, I wanted to announce that I will be blogging about the games over at the Olympics-Reference Blog. My first post (below) is up, and I will start posting analysis next week.

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If you’re like me, you like the Winter Olympics; not because you know much about the sports or participants, but because it’s fun to watch people play around in the snow. And while I enjoy sitting down front of the TV to watch whatever NBC decides to show me, just staring at screen and cheering for the athlete with the saddest side-story doesn’t feel right. For years I’ve been watching baseball through an analytical lens, trying to better understand the factors that matter most. I’ve blogged about it extensively at Sabernomics.com, my book The Baseball Economist was published three years ago, and my latest book Hot Stove Economics will be published this coming fall.

Well, it’s time for a little more in-depth analysis of the winter games, and thanks to Olympics-Reference this is possible. When Sean Forman rolled out the site I happened to be working on a project investigating how baseball players age, so I was familiar with how researchers had been using Olympics data to analyze aging patterns. The academic literature contained several interesting studies of Olympic sports that examined how athletes aged, but most of the analysis has concentrated on summer sports. I saw Olympics-Reference provided a fruitful data source for analysis of winter events.

Winter sports pose a new challenge, because almost every sport requires tools like skis, skates, sleds, and even guns. So, I decided to take on a project that looked at aging in winter sports. How does aging differ across sports? How has it changed over time? How does aging differ by gender? These are some of the questions that I have been examining, and I thought it would be a good idea to blog about some of my findings while the winter games were going on.

So, starting Monday, I’ll be blogging here about the Winter Olympics. If you’re familiar with the games in a way that I am not—I’ve lived most of my life in the South, so I’m not all that familiar with winter sports—feel free to chime in. I see some puzzles in the data that are ripe for examination.

Defending Dynamic Pricing

I’ve received several calls from reporters over the past few weeks to discuss a phenomenon that’s sweeping baseball: the “dynamic pricing” of tickets. In general, this means charging different prices for the same seats for different games. This may involve charging a higher price for rivalry games, weekend games, or the latest fad charging more for game-day purchases. All of these adjustments are designed to generate more revenue for clubs by varying the price of the ticket according to changes in fans’ willingness to pay for games.

I can see how fans might find such policies repugnant. A seat is a seat, the stadium’s in place, the salaries are set, and workers have been hired. What justifies the price increase? Joe Eskenazi expresses his frustration with the Giants dynamic pricing policy

The oft-quoted model for the new, likely soon-to-be-ubiquitous baseball pricing system is airline ticket purchasing. It’s almost certain readers have experienced first-hand the joys of last week’s $300 tickets this week being priced at $410. It’s a strong incentive to buy early before myriad contrived supply-and-demand factors are tossed into the algorithm and you end up paying through the nose. As noted before, inducing people to spend quickly and pinging those who do not is good business sense.

On the other hand, it just seems downright wrong that you should be made to pay more for a baseball game because it’s a “great day for baseball.” It seems exploitative that you should be made to cough up extra dollars when Tim Lincecum is on the mound; will we be given a deep discount when Zito is pitching or Pablo Sandoval takes a day off? Further following the airline model, will we be charged extra for using the restroom? Do clean seats cost more? Do I have to pay extra to stay out of the all-felon, all-drunk, all-jerks talking loudly about work on their iPhone section?

The act of charging different prices for different units of identical items is known to economists as price discrimination. While discrimination has pejorative connotations, in this sense the term merely describes the act of charging different prices according to different willingnesses to pay. There are several conditions that must be met for price discrimination to work, and baseball teams meet them all pretty well. And while successful price discrimination definitely increases profits, it also has the benefit of increasing output. For baseball, this means more, and sometimes cheaper, baseball for fans.

How does charging more for premium games benefit fans? For the fan who was previously able to buy a ticket for $20 who must now pay $25, that fan is certainly worse off. But, if he values attending the game at $25 or greater, then all that has been lost is consumer surplus—the difference between what a consumer is willing to pay and what he/she actually pays. That loss to the consumer is offset by the gains to the seller. If we’re not picking sides, the world has the exact amount of surplus as it used to have; all we’ve observed is a transfer of surplus from one party to another. It’s easy to see yourself as the fan who’s ticket price has gone up and be pissed about it. But, I’m not really all that sympathetic. People are paying a price for a product they value at that price or higher, I’m not seeing a downside. You used to be able to buy something you valued more for less, and now you have to pay a higher price that is still equivalent to or less than what you value the product. And when the product is a baseball game, cry me a river in the name of social justice.

But, that’s not the reason why price discrimination is a good thing. If you want to take sides with the fans paying a higher price, I’m not going to stop you. The blessing of charging different prices for a product is that it allows more units to be sold at a lower price. In a world were a seller chooses only one price for a product, it must be the one where it maximizes the gains from selling a few units at a high price and selling many units at a low price. Where that price occurs it’s going to result in some people paying prices less than they value the product and some having to pay more than they value the product. The former group will continue to purchase the product, but the latter group is priced out of the market—this is very bad.

Son: Hey dad, will you take me to see a baseball game? I’ve never been.
Dad: Sorry son, tickets are expensive and we can’t afford that right now.
Son: I don’t care what team we see. I just want to go to experience the ballpark. I’ll go see the Royals play on a cold night.
Dad: It doesn’t matter what the weather is or who’s playing. Tickets are tickets, and we can’t afford them right now.

But with price discrimination, those marginal fans have the opportunity to go to games when other fans value them less. (What you’re upset that poor people can’t go to big games? When world poverty is eliminated come back to me and we can discuss the moral importance of assuring poor people the right to see important games.) Fluctuating prices don’t just mean higher prices, they result in lower prices as well. The team now has the freedom to charge lower prices without losing revenue from all the fans willing to pay higher prices when games are in high demand.

If dynamic pricing goes away, so do the cheap seats. If you have to choose one price to maximize profits, it’s going to be one that prevents a lot of fans from going to the games, and that is a bigger tragedy in my mind.

The Transmission of Knowledge

Two weeks ago, I attended a seminar that got me thinking about something other than the topic, which was sports drinks. A well-respected researcher who had conducted many studies explained the findings of the research in her field. I entered the talk thinking that I knew nothing about this field, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to hear, but I soon realized that I “knew” more about the subject than I realized.

If you’re around sports you hear all sorts of advice given to athletes about hydration. “Gatorade is no better than water.” “You should cut Gatorade with water, 50/50.” “Caffeine will dehydrate you, stay away from it when playing sports. I’ve heard such statements made with supreme confidence from parents watching their children to medical doctors advising patients. The problem is, they’re all wrong. And if you understand a bit about how the body works, you quickly understand things like why caffeine doesn’t dehydrate you during exercise.

But, that bit of understanding is something I, and a lot of other people who hear this advice, don’t have. Over the years, the repetition of statements has generated a consensus in my brain. By accident I’d come to believe something that isn’t true, and it’s been reinforced by the ignorance of others who have formed the same beliefs. But when you see the studies on the subject, it’s clear that the academic consensus is completely at odds with the conventional wisdom on this.

This story is an old one. How often do we hear that sports stadiums promote economic development, or that growth hormone enhances performance? The public perception is directly at odds with the scientific consensus. How does the conventional wisdom get things so wrong, and how can we combat this? And I wonder how many things I think I know are wrong.

If you are an expert, speak up and don’t wait for someone to ask your opinion. Researchers generally speak to one another, and are rewarded only for doing so. In some cases, researchers are discouraged from reaching outside normal channels. If you see a reporter get the facts wrong, send him/her an e-mail saying, “hey, here’s another perspective on the issue that I thought you might appreciate.”

Also, be skeptical of everything, but at the same time acknowledge that you may lack the tools to understand everything. Don’t take the words of your friend as a fact, and don’t necessarily think you can piece together a conclusion all on your own. Remember that things that may appear to make sense on the surface may be more complex. Find expert opinions when you can, and don’t just gravitate to the ones who seem to support what you want to believe.

I don’t have a good answer, but the main thing is to be cognizant that these errors exist.